#4 I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
Developer: The Dreamer’s Guild
Publisher: Cyberdreams, Acclaim
Written By: Harlan Ellison
Systems Released On: DOS
Release Date: 10/31/1995
Yes my friends, we are seeing an Acclaim title at #4. Good god almighty, if I hadn’t bothered to look at the box, I’d have laughed in your face had you suggested Acclaim was capable of publishing a title in the top five of ANY genre.
Before we go any farther, I am going to have to insist you go and read the short story that Harlan Ellison wrote back in 1967 upon which this game is not only based on, but which Harlan Ellison himself revised and rewrote for the video game version by the same name.
If you do not read it, you are doing yourself a massive disservice, and will most likely be missing about half of what I’m going to speak on over the next few pages. SO GO READ IT ALREADY. Hit back on your browser when you’re done and we’ll proceed from there.
I Have No Mouth, and I must Scream is one of the most important and influential stories ever written in the Sci-Fi genre. Ellison wrote the entire tale in a single night in a stream on consciousness style of writing, making no changes to the original draft for almost thirty years, when the video game version would come out. IHNM&IMS would be published in March of 1967 and go on to win a HUGO award in 1968. In its forty years of being published, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, has become one of the one reprinted short stories in the English language.
Again, go read the story before you proceed. It’s only sixteen pages long and there will be a lot of spoilers from here on.
When Cyberdreams approached Ellison to turn I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream into a video game, it had to have been amusing to the famous writer. After all, Ellison is a known technophobe, and he had, in the past, show disdain for the concept of video games, as well as made it publicly known he would not own a computer. However the concept of creating “interactive literature” was a challenge Ellison has never taken on before, and it appealed to him to tackle a new form of writing. Ellison would hammer out the entire script for the video game on an old fashioned typewriter.
Here is where the short story differentiates from the video game. After all, sixteen pages is about sixteen minutes of reading (at most), and I Have No Mouth, takes about a dozen hours to play. Ellison thus had to flesh out his characters and completely rewriter the story from thirty years before into something long enough to be a novella (130 pages). By the time the game was finished, the document would swell to EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES and would contain over two thousand lines of dialogue that would be voiced by actors, including one cast member whose participation would surprise everyone involved (See below).
Ellison also decided to eschew the typical video game fan. You know the type, the one that needs constant gore and mindless violence in the game. The people who think shooting a bunch of dinosaurs on a space station is somehow horrific. Instead, those who chose to take on I Have No Mouth would be forced to deal with truly horrifying situations such as playing as a Mengele type in a Concentration camp. That’s right boys and girls. In this game, you’re slaughtering emaciated broken and treated like cattle Jews. There’s also terrifying situations that are far more grounded in reality than the usual video game such as rape, cannibalism, and racism. I Have No Mouth forces each and every person that loads the game up to take a look at what is quite possibly the scariest thing of all: how mankind truly acts rather than how we all wish we would. This is a game about introspection and what makes humanity unique amongst all of life on this planet. This is a game about brain over brawn, morality over violence, and life over death.
For those of you who need something a little more fantastical thanks to your years of saving princesses from living mushrooms and flying turtles, we do have a post apocalyptic world where a computer controls reality for the handful of surviving humans who now exist solely for his own sadistic amusement. That too is a concept that in the era of the Cold War seemed all too possible. Ellison and Cyberdreams created an adventure/sci-fi/horror amalgamation that was far more grounded in reality that most other games. Even eleven years later, I Have No Mouth still manages to disturb new gamers by forcing us all to accept there is no monster Man’s imagination can create that can be a more loathsome creature that the one we look at in the mirror on a daily basis.
The biggest change plotwise was Ellison fleshing out his five protagonists. The video game version of I Have No Mouth reveals more about AM and also why these five humans were saved from worldwide genocide by it. And by saved I of course mean, sentenced to over a century of constant torture and torment. In the beginning of the Short Story, AM mentions briefly that all five humans were different before AM came. Within the confines of the game, you learn that for a few that may be true, but for others they have earned this hell to which AM has placed them in.
Much like in the short story, the game is quite dark and brooding, with many ways for the five playable characters to screw up, fail, and lose horribly. There are also ways to lose yet succeed. Dying while being true to the greater tenements of morality and decency for example. Self-Sacrifice is another. This game is not meant to be happy. It is not meant to reward you for making choices you should be making every day without conscious thought. This game is simply a metaphor for, “We all f*ck up. Sometimes it’s too late. Sometimes the only redemption for our acts comes in sacrifice.” There is one ending where the game has as close to a happy ending as possible, but much like with Clock Tower, this ending is to sate those have a hard time accepting most of the time the dark side of things wins out. The “Good” ending is cheesy but is still melancholy. The one key thing to remember that for the rest of the game for this one deviation, even if you succeed in the tasks or puzzles put before you, this does not mean your particular character will have a happy ending. There are many ways in which this game can end, including re-enacting the end of the short story. It will take dozens of play sessions to discover all that you can do to bring these characters to their eventual ends.
The music and voice acting of I Have No Mouth is amazing. The music may
“only” be MIDI files, but they were all designed by John Ottoman who also wrote the music for The Usual Suspects and X-Men. The music is haunting and riveting, enhancing the most important piece of the game: the story. At no time is it distracting or annoying. it is simply there in the back of your mind, adding a level of drama and tension to the words floating across your screen or being spoken by a voice actor.
Quite possibly the most eyebrow raising aspect of the voice acting in I Have No Mouth is that Harlon Ellison himself voices the insane godlike supercomputer AM. I haven’t decided if it’s ironic or fitting that a man who eschews computers plays the voice of a sentient one whose sole reason for existence is to torture humanity. I should point out here that Ellison is not the only voice actor, and that forty other men and women were hired to breathe life into the characters in the game.
The graphics of I Have No Mouth are a bit difficult to explain seeing that they change throughout the story. What I mean by this is that all of reality for the protagonists is controlled by an insane computerized god who can change perception at its will. The graphics have a degree of homogony throughout the game, but each character’s level is strikingly different in terms of backgrounds and settings. Nimdok’s level is especially troubling for many who play the game (To the point where this level was removed from all German copies of the game) due to the detail and accuracy of the depiction of concentration camp life. Even though the game is over a decade old, some people still point out how unsettling the visuals can be, even though the game has little to no violence in it. Now that’s powerful.
The interface of I Have No Mouth is similar to adventure game engines. You’ll be using the mouth and a menu at the bottom of the screen to interact with your environment and use various items throughout the quests that AM forces your characters into. However, there are two very unique pieces of the game’s interface that subtly enhance your gaming experience. The first is what is referred to as a “Spiritual Barometer.” This aspect is noticeable in your character’s portrait at the bottom of the screen. Pay close attention to the background of it. As you do good deeds or morally correct choices, the background of the portrait will become green. The more evil acts that you do, the darker the background of the portrait will turn. This has an effect on what ending you receive in the game. The “Good” ending is achievable by all five characters having a high (green) barometer rating, which ultimately means playing at least one character very different from how you are meant to.
The other bit worth noticing is that each character can has a “psychiatric profile” and has the opportunity to read them. The profile reveals more about the character’s background and what their next objective is in the game, but using it lowers your barometer.
When I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream was released back in late 1995, it received a great deal of critical acclaim and praise, and is still consistently ranked as one of the top 100 video games ever made, often placing in the top 15 depending on the media source and criteria. For myself, it is still one of the most profound experiences I have ever had while playing a video game and can’t recommend it enough. Very few other games force the gamer to examine their own concepts of morality and take a long hard introspective look at who they really are. Video games are almost exclusively a form of escapism. Something to do so one doesn’t have to look at where they are in their lives. A form on entertainment that allows them to escape into a fantasy world. I Have No Mouth instead forces the player to look at reality harder then they most likely ever have before and shows them that escapism is a far worse alternative that being active in the real world and trying to make it a better place.
A game that tries to make the player a better human being and examines the many fatal flaws we all try to hide from others and ultimately ourselves. Truly, what is more frightening to most people than to examine their own lives and the mess they have made of them? If you are looking for the most sublime example of computerized horror/terror, then look no further than I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.
#3 Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Developer: Silicon Knights
Systems Released On: Nintendo Game Cube
Release Date: 06/23/2002
Eternal Darkness, for me, is the greatest Terror game put out on this generation of consoles. Knowing it would be a Nintendo exclusive was why I chose the Game Cube as my first system for this generation. Well, that and the fact that eventually there would be Pokemon games for it…
It’s funny that even though we’ve covered roughly half a dozen games that outright use Lovecraftian/Cthulhuoid characters, that the game that captured that feeling best is the one that doesn’t actively use any of HPL’s characters by name. You can tell that Silicon Knights was heavily inspired by Chaosium’s pen and paper Cthulhu RPG as well as Lovecraft’s writing, but in the end the monsters and Elder Gods are unique to this game.
Eternal Darkness really changed how we view horror/terror video games. Up until its release, all the big well known titles in the genre were Survival Horror, with a focus on mindless repetitive violence over any sort of well crafted story. Silcon Knights went a very different route and made sure that they had the first heavily marketing spooky game where the focus was on terror and plot over gore and horrible gameplay.
The game focuses not on one protagonist, but a series of many characters through history that you will play as. The two main characters that you will engage as are Alexandra Roivas, who is reading “The Book of Eternal Darkness” and thus learning the history of mankind’ greatest threat and those who fought against it, and Pious Augustus, who is not only the first character you play as, but by the end of his level, you learn he is also the antagonist who will plague you throughout the game. I really loved this plot twist, as how often do ones get to play as the main bad guy in a video game? You spend this time getting attached to a character and them bam! You learn you’ve just helped evil and will have to eventually do battle with him at the end of the game. The only other time I can think of this occurring is in Lunar: The Silver Star, when Alex and Luna bring Ghaleon to Quark and well…oops. Playing as Pious is just one of the many ways Eternal Darkness broke the mold for this genre of gaming and inspired many other developers to attempt to re-created it’s magic; sadly failing miserably each time.
The tale of Eternal Darkness is inevitably the tale of three warring ancient gods from a time before mankind was even a glimmer on the threshold of existence. Their names are Chattur’gha, Xel’lotath, and Ulyaoth. One god represents strength, one represents sanity/will, and the final represents magic. The three exist in a rock-paper-scissors type state, where all three are in conflict with themselves, but ultimately they share the same goal, for the stars to align, and through a combination of arcane magic and greedy humans hungry for power, when they will be freed and let loose to rule the world once more.
All three gods are kept in check by Mantorok, who is basically Azathoth without the mindlessness. However one of the ancients used the last of its power to turn an ambitious Roman Centurion into its undead herald. This of course is Pious Augustus who I mentioned earlier. In Pious’ chapter, you pick which of the ancient evils he will serve throughout the game. Each one changes the feel of the game in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Cut to modern times. A young woman named Alexandria Roivas (Spell the last name backwards) is awakened from a nightmare to learn her grandfather has just died under mysterious circumstances. She journeys to his home in Rhode Island and not only discovers the truth of her grandfather’s demise, but also the Tome of Eternal Darkness and the stories of a dozen people throughout history who came in contact with this vile grimoire. Some of the characters thwart the evil Pious’ machinations to bring forth his elder of choice, and some meet a grisly end no matter how you well you perform in their scenario. Again, one of the true tenets of terror is failing even when you succeed. How many protagonists from Bierce-ian, Lovecraftian or Robert Bloch style fiction die at the summation of their tale? Quite a few, and Eternal Darkness forces the player to accept and witness some pretty gruesome ends to characters they might have become attached to.
There are five different endings to Eternal Darkness. The first is if you lose to Pious in the endgame. The second, third, and fourth all nearly identical except for which god is mentioned by name during the close and a closing paragraph by Alex depending on how many times you have beaten the game. The fifth ending is only achievable when you defeat the game three times using your old save. The third time the game is beaten you get the corresponding ending to whichever God you have sealed away, but there is an epilogue that completely changes the tone of the game and is a masterful swerve of Machiavellian proportions. Of course the game is some incredible to begin with, I’d like to think anyone who owns this game will eventually get around to getting the secret final ending.
Graphically, Eternal Darkness remains one of the best looking video games on the Cube, even though it was released at the six month mark of the game’s lifespan.For a game that was originally supposed to debut on the Nintendo 64, ED has very little about it that resembles something made for that console. The character designs are quite varied in nature, ranging from a Cambodian dancer to a very hefty middle aged man circa the era of the Revolutionary War. Each character looks as if Silcon Knights spent quite some time researching the garb of the period, as well as the settings themselves. I remember my jaw dropping at the level of detail in the backgrounds of every single level of this game. There are so many subtleties and nods to various things that I was amazed they could fit them all in and still make the game amazing. The cracks in tomb walls, the cracking pages of parchment; everything is just so well designed and intricate that it takes several playthroughs to realize the level of excellent SK achieved with the visuals here. This is one of those rare games where, thanks to a gripping plot and astounding graphics, it is just as fun to watch as it is to play.
The soundtrack to Eternal Darkness is superb. It manages to be both chilling and energizing at the same time. The sound effects are simply brilliant, with so many little things like phantom footsteps or the dripping of water captured perfectly. The voice acting too is very fitting, with the most minor of issues being some characters don’t have the accent they probably should (Such as Ellia). Aside from that, each voice actor manages to really capture the spirit of the characters they portray, showing a wide range of emotions and personality in the scant amount of lines they are given. Even the voice/noises of the ancients and Montorok are alien enough in nature to make them creepy to the player.
The gameplay of Eternal Darkness is just as solid as the rest of the game. Usually an action horror/terror game has dreadful gameplay as the Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark franchises can attest to. ED though has amazingly fluid gameplay that is very easy to learn and yet constantly surprises you with how deep it actually is.
‘m not a fan of the Gamecube controller. Unless it is games like Super Monkey Ball, a turn based RPG, or Super Smash Brothers: Melee, I prefer the Xbox controller out of this current generation’s because I was using that same setup a decade ago for NiGHTS: Into Dreams. Thus, I am always shocked whenever I pick up Eternal Darkness and find I have no problems with the weirdness that was the GCN controller. Silicon Knights ensured that the gameplay fit the controller perfectly. There’s no wacky way to hold the controller for maximum efficiency ala Luigi’s Mansion. The quick spells are in perfect reach of your left thumb, while if physical combat is your preferred route, you can hit the right trigger (for locking on to an enemy) and the A button smoothly. There’re no horrible camera angles or slow revolving in place so you can turn around. It’s simply well designed action based gameplay.
Combat was a great deal of fun for me. Once you lock on to an enemy, you then can guide your character and aim for specific body parts. Lop off an arm, decapitate a zombie, whatever suits your fancy. You can also a non guided attack which will do less damage, but is faster and can push an enemy away as well, giving you precious breathing room.
Magic too had a great feel to it. Instead of pulling spells from a drop down list or just all of a sudden knowing them, your characters will have to investigate and eventually put spells together from the knowledge they have acquired. Spellcasting involves finding runes, then discovering what each rune means, and finally putting three runes together in hopes that they will make a spell. It’s much easier on you if you find a spell scroll which will TELL you a triad of runes to combine and what spell they will create. Once you master three rune casting, you’ll eventually have access to five and seven rune casting. I really enjoyed the putting together of spells, and the visuals/and audio effects that would go with each one. The odd voices that come from spell casting is just so fitting considering that magic in ED is tapping into things Humanity was never meant to traffic with.
The last thing worth touching upon in gameplay is the thing Eternal Darkness is best known for: the sanity effects. As I mentioned earlier, other games have tried to duplicate this and have failed miserably. Every game I can think of from Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth on down manages only to highlight just how superior ED is to these copycats, and leaves the gamer wonder how newer games can fail to not only capture the level of intensity of the sanity effects in this game, but although the plethora contained within.
The effects vary depending on how low your sanity meter gets. They can be as subtle as the eyes of a bust following you. As your sanity decreases they will get more intense. Your dead grandfather may call you. Perhaps you’ll even foreshadow Alex’s suicide. Each effect adds dramatically to the game and eventually leaves you wondering what’s actually happening in the game, and what is all in the character’s mind.
These are all great, but it’s the metagame effects that really show the true creativity (and evil) of the designers. Sometimes the volume of your TV will change or complete mute. Sometimes the screen w ill go black. Sometimes you’ll get a message saying “There is no controller in socket #1” right when you need to fight the most. And truly the most evil of all is where the game pretends to erase your save data. I’ve heard so many stories about people that have fallen for the metagaming sanity effects. Words can’t describe I much I loved this bit of the game. For me it’s definitely one of the ten most unique things in the history of gaming. The game f*cks with you. Not the character, but you the player. And although the game is now three years old and people are all well aware of the infamy of this game, there has never been a game (and probably never will be) that can out do the outright “Holy Shit!” factor that Eternal Darkness installed in millions of gamers worldwide roughly four years ago. It’s one of the most unique and original experience in this industry and I hope you were able to enjoy it when it was fresh and original for everyone out there.
Eternal Darkness has no equal when it comes to two aspects of gaming. The first is giving gamers the most satisfying Lovecraft-esque adventure currently available in interactive format. The second is that no other game has ever toyed with the minds and the emotions of gamers like this one. Considering most gamers are potty mouthed people who throw their controllers and sometimes even break gaming discs, it’s hard to think of an audience more prone to getting suckered by Eternal Darkness You can buy it nowadays for roughly ten dollars new. It’s hard to think of a better bargain out there for this generation of consoles. Here’s hoping someday Silcon Knights will return and give us a sequel on the Wii, 360, or PS3 that is a worthy successor to this title.
Next week gives us the final two games! Clocking in at #2 (Ouch, what a pun) is Clock Tower #2. This probably surprises many of you who assumed it would be #1. So what’s the #1 game? No, it won’t be a fake #1 like the RPG’s Final Fantasy VII column where we suckered readers in and then the entire staff of 411mania (which is where I was writing at the time) bashed the game to high hell. The #1 game is…well, that would be telling, and I already gave away #2. So here’s a hint. It’s widely available in English, but was never released in North America.
Finally, before I go, I want to say congratulations to Gloomchen as I attended her wedding last night (and signed the marriage license as a witness). It’s funny because a little over a year ago, I used my icon status to internet-marry her to a friend of mine who I thought would be perfect for her and vice versa. Last Memorial Day weekend, they met for the first time. This Memorial Day weekend they are husband and wife. The moral here people is that the Sub-Cultural Icon is always right and you should always do what I say. Here’s to a long and happy marriage
I’ll see you next week with the end of the Top 30 Horror/Terror Countdown.